George & Tammy on Paramount+ review: obsessive love and great music hampered by its storytelling
Whether it’s I Knew You Were Trouble or Fleetwood Mac, the Gallagher brothers or Cry Me A River, we love it when real life drama informs songs. And nowhere is this more common than in country music: a genre defined by comfortingly repetitive chord structures, film-esque storytelling and duets born out of the tumultuous relationships between the two people singing. Johnny and June Carter Cash. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. But most of all, Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
More than perhaps any other musical couple, Wynette and Jones, portrayed in Paramount +’s new six parter George & Tammy by Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, mined the ups and downs of their rollercoaster six years together – and their eventual reunion – in song. The lyrics of 1972’s The Ceremony comprised their actual wedding vows. At the other end, 1976’s Golden Ring traces the sad journey of a wedding band cast aside “like the love that’s dead and gone”.
In this lavish series – originally a film, with Chastain and Josh Brolin starring – we join the soon-to-be-briefly-happy-then-unhappy couple in Nashville, 1969. Jones, already a star, is out of his mind on all sorts of things in a backstage toilet. He has to be carried onstage where he is, of course, suddenly brilliant. In the crowd is Wynette: an as-yet-unrealised talent who has long idolised Jones (11 years her senior) but who is currently making unremarkable music with her songwriter husband Don Chapel.
Wynette and Jones meet. There is an obvious spark, a disastrous dinner with Chapel, who is keen to get Jones to sing some of his songs, then realises the singer is after his wife. There’s a fight, a marriage in Mexico, and so begins a long journey of obsessive love and great music made together.
As you might expect, Shannon is decent as a trainwreck star trying and largely failing to keep it together (”Fast is the only speed I know,” he grimaces at one point). Chastain is as great as she always is too, but it is a big problem that she is supposed to be 11 years younger than Shannon. In real life the pair are pretty much the same age: a decade and two decades older, respectively, than the people they are portraying were in 1969. She feels more like his equal than a wide eyed protege-slash-young lover-slash-former fan.
Historical accuracy-wise, it matters: this, after all, is a story of a woman in her mid-twenties who falls in with her teen idol of ten years ago. “Imagine the publicity,” she says to her husband of about five minutes. “George and Tammy singing a love song written by Tammy’s ex. Could it be any more country?” A scene or so later she baulks when he shows her the huge house he has bought them, insisting that she does not want to be controlled. Neither this cynicism nor the fiery independence – this early on in their marriage at least – rings particularly true.
But then this is clearly not a series for country music nerds. In 2022, most people – in the UK, at least – will probably not be familiar with any George Jones songs. In terms of Tammy Wynette, meanwhile, they will know Stand By Your Man – the misunderstood, feminist credentials of which are, inevitably, hammered home here – then maybe D I V O R C E (via Dolly Parton) and, if they’re a bit older, Justified and Ancient with the KLF in 1991.
So what you get are lots of muscial sequences, featuring songs you don’t really know, rendered still less remarkable by the fine-but-not-magical singing of the show’s two leads. In truth you do just miss those cheesy-but-effective music biopic moments where the protagonists stumble, finally, into bangersville and trigger a montage speeding through bigger and bigger venues. More importantly, without those it’s hard to see George Jones as the genius artist this series insists that he is.
Undoubtedly, this is a story with some juice, and people who loved Nashville, or Walk The Line and felt drawn to county music will be well served (it’s also a damn sight better than Tom Hiddleston’s execrable Hank Williams biopic, I Saw The Light).
But the good thing about Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman et al is that you’re never more than ten minutes away from an absolute monster tune. That is not the case here, and will likely stop many people persevering through the whole six hours.
George & Tammy airs on Paramount+ on December 5